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Wednesday, 18 August 2010 10:11

Sugar Minott: An Appreciation and Memories of the Artist in St. Louis + Video

Sugar Minott in Winnipeg 2008 Sugar Minott in Winnipeg 2008 FidelAstro
Written by Michael Kuelker
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The reggae community suffered an incalculable loss on July 10, 2010, when Sugar Minott died of a heart condition in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of 54. The grief and the outpouring of love and tributes attest to the affection and respect that so many people in the reggae community have for the artist. May his example never be forgotten.

Author of many hits and a pioneer in re-constituting old rhythms for new songs, Sugar Minott sang lovers rock as convincingly as he did cultural material. Not every artist can move as fluidly. His role in mentoring young artists through his Youth Promotion enterprises, moreover, is justly legendary. Garnet Silk, Little John, Tony Rebel, Junior Reid, Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty, Yami Bolo and many more passed under his tutelage.

For me, the crux to Sugar Minott’s career, from his vocal style to his songs to the internationality of his appeal, has always been the empathy he conveyed. It’s impossible to write about the appearances he had over the years in St. Louis without mentioning what connected his music to his audience.

In one of reggae’s best-ever takes on the Throw Mi Corn riddim (“Ease Up”), Sugar sings “Ease up, mister question man / seh ease up, mister immigration” and explains his need to reach foreign land. He has got to earn a bread because for Jamaicans, going international means freedom, mobility, family – and often, income-earning opportunities that they can’t find on the island. The visa interview at the American embassy is no cakewalk, as you find out when you go to Kingston, where you wait a long long time and then stand at a window to have your documentation scrutinized. You get questioned, and courtesy from the authority behind the counter is optional. I once heard, for instance, a visa-seeker being asked in a rather berating tone who was going to take care of her kids while she was off the island. This is the existential zone where a song like “Ease Up” exists, and Sugar is perfect for it. His voice communicates solidarity with the sufferah; he’s a combination of big brother and pro bono public defender singing on the people’s behalf.

That quality gave torque to the imperatives of his Rasta-infused material. He would flash proverbs and karma-in-patois. In “Give the People,” he sings, “I’m going to give you the last warning,” and though the “you” is never specifically identified, the song loses nothing. It came out in 1979, when the Jamaican situation was especially dread, economically, politically and socially. The song is part of the millenarian strain of roots reggae –

Give the people what they want, they want justice.
Give the people what they want, they want freedom.
Give the people what they want, they want love inside
Give the people what they want, they want equal rights

– and these are lyrics which won't win over an audience of Jamaicans unless they're conveyed with passion and artistry; without a cache of goodwill among his audience, an artist might get a bottle thrown at him if the mood at the stage show or the dance isn’t irie. People loved Sugar because he asked for it all, on The People’s behalf, and he does it here atop a bubbling, driving roots riddim with nyah drums crackling in the atmosphere. Mixed by Prince Jammy at King Tubby’s with the creme de la creme of Jamaica’s musical fraternity, it’s the equal of anything Bob Marley was doing at the time.

Sugar is justly praised for taking so many of the great Studio One riddims of the 1960s and recasting them the next decade, but even in the much smaller body of work he did for Jammy, George Phang or rival Channel One, not to mention what he released through his own Black Roots/Youthman Promotion, in the late 70s and 80s he was a voice of genre-defining music.

In “Cell Block One,” he cast a close eye to prison life. In the tradition of a counting song, the singer goes from cell block one on down to cell block ten, taking stock of how severe the conditions are. The prisoners are not glorified, and “Cell Block One” is not the defense of badman-ism the way so many Jamaican songs are. It is, like the best folk music, a piece of artful journalism. Sugar becomes the recorder of deeds for the men, who must contend with living in privation, from the bad food and foul smells and mice to their longing for freedom and having to defecate on a newspaper. The conclusions of the song are not didactic, only that “it well dread inna jail house.” Because of his precision and restraint, I would argue that Sugar has the toughest lyric of any of the dozens of tunes that have been cut on Won’t You Come Home, a riddim which has tended to produce dreamy love messages and dreamy millennial themes.

His best work was always finely calibrated to the vox populi. In “Oh Mr DC,” he famously took up the cause of the herbsman coming from country and confronting the district constable. “Don’t you take my I-shense / don’t you touch my collie / the children dying fi hunger / and I-man a-suffer.” He pleads to pass through with the stuff by which he keeps his family alive.

Even in a song like “Sprinter Stayer,” which comes out of the long tradition of boasting in Caribbean music, he sang like he was giving advice on how to succeed.

The lasting value of his music owes to this empathic nature and to the masterful authority with which Sugar rode a riddim. Listen, for instance, to “Mass Mi Mass” (on the Real Rock riddim for George Phang’s Powerhouse label in 1985) for his phrasing and timing. A few years earlier, he did “Wicked a Go Feel It” for the New York City-based Wackies label, and it was still the Real Rock riddim though it had been reconstructed with new emphasis points sonically, musical space which he filled differently than in “Mass Mi Mass.” In a generation when DJ-style artists are machine gunning lyrics without a deft or organic relation with the riddim, Sugar Minott stands as Exhibit A in the art of melding vocals with skankable music.

He bore a quality of voice and character that united themes. He could sing about loving up the woman, or praising Jah, or nicing up the dancehall, or calling for peace, he could render a Rasta lesson and croon a gooey ballad, he could sing about everybody at the dance buying out the bar or about one lone guy looking for a job and finding no vacancy. They were all reality lyrics when they came from his mouth.

I can’t describe Sugar Minott in St. Louis without first noting these qualities.

Checking Fi Sugar at Youthman Promotion

I last saw Sugar Minott in February 2010 in Kingston. It was my first time to check him at his Youth Promotion yard.

I was in Kingston to give a paper at the International Reggae Conference at the University of West Indies-Mona. My presentation was on bus songs in Jamaican music, and one of my set pieces was the ultra-rare dubplate “Dutty Bus” by Junior Byles. In conversation with a Rasta attendee named Ras Rocki, I’d mentioned that I had hoped to link up with reclusive Mr Byles. I had a copy of “Dutty Bus” given to me by St. Louis music historian Leroy Pierson, and out of that same spirit, I wanted to link the artist with his own copy and to see how he was. The news on Junior Byles is generally bad. When I’d called Sonic Sounds earlier in the week in looking for him, I was told that Junior’s health physically, mentally, spiritually, is such that he wouldn’t recognize the song I had in my bag. It wouldn’t be a good idea to seek him out, I was told.

Ras Rocki told me Sugar would know how to find Junior. Sugar knows everybody in the business. His idea was that Junior Byles could still be all right in life, that he just needed a space to heal. So on a bright hot Saturday morning in February, I met up with Ras Rocki in Halfway Tree, cabbed it over to Youth Promotion and did a pop-in. Rocki talked us through the front gate.

Stranger Cole was sitting on the steps leading into Sugar’s office. One or two others hung out in the otherwise empty yard. So I spoke to Stranger for a moment as Rocki went into the office. Stranger was biding his time, heading out in a few weeks to Australia to perform. Then I was invited inside.

Sugar was at his computer and got up and graciously took a break to address my query. I have this song for Junior, I said, holding up the gleaming CD, a rarity. He should have this in case he doesn’t.

If you want to see Junior Byles, check fi Sprintah, said Sugar. Sprintah is Junior’s manager. Ras Rocki and I took note of the directions.

But before we left the yard, I told Sugar how much I have enjoyed his performances over the years, most recently in Negril and in California. It was the second time that trip somebody said, “You’re from St. Louis? You know Papa Ray?” (The other time was when I met Legends of Ska filmmaker Brad Klein.) Indeed I do. Sugar asked how Vintage Vinyl was doing, and we talked for a moment about the vagaries of the independent record store business. Is dread these gray days.

That was it. I said thanks and goodbye and then we touched fists. Ras Rocki and I returned to the cab, threaded through Kingston 13 and found Herbert “Sprintah” Barrett. He was right where Sugar said he’d be, at a shop on a busy street, which he locked up so he could get in the car and lead us to the reclusive Junior Byles. It was beautiful sunny and intensely warm day in Kingston. Junior was staying with his 90-year-old father, and here too fate smiled, as he was there when we arrived. Contrary to what I had been told, Junior recalled “Jolly Bus,” immediately singing some of the chorus.

I tell this little story because Sugar asked about a St. Louisan as we were at his home turf, Youth Promotion yard. He’d been in our community and it made a good impression on him.

Seeing Sugar in St. Louis

One of my favorite memories of Sugar in St. Louis is of a concert that didn't happen. It was, if memory serves, in 1999 at Indigo on Washington Avenue downtown. It was a nice ballroom atmosphere. Due to a promoter foul-up, monies apparently weren't paid to the artist ... and yet people were paying at the door and coming in. We were all waiting a long time. The MC assured us the artist was coming.

Finally, after midnight, Sugar walked to the stage. He was dressed very sharply in a white suit, and as his band took their positions he said in very rapid patois something to the effect that he nah deal with promoter f***ery and this promoter was rippin' off the singers and players but that Sugar Minott is a man of the people and so he wants to give the people a taste of Sugar. He sang two songs, one of them "Sprinter Stayer,” and then he repeated the thing about the promoter and about himself as a Man of the People. He walked through the crowd and out the front door. The promoter left the venue more discreetly that night.

Fortunately, he returned to St. Louis for other performances. He played a “Bob Marley earthday concert” on February 8, 1997, at the Transit Union Hall on South Broadway. I missed that one and also the show of legend in 1990, when Sugar performed at The Sheldon in St. Louis on a bill with Little John.

He performed again on May 26, 1999, at Club Viva. The backing band was Dub Dis, who, I thought, did a good but not great job. There was something too heavy, even plodding about their riddims; Sugar’s kind of reggae needs buoyancy, that quality which Bob Marley described as “light like a feather and heavy as lead.” Nonetheless, there was a celebratory mood in the house and an interesting Jamaican connection in St. Louis that evening. The concert was put on by former Channel One engineer Stanley “Barnabas” Bryan, who lived in St. Louis at the time. Barnabas had played drums for Sugar at least as far back as Sugar’s Ghetto-ology album in 1979; he also engineered the Jah Live, African Girl and Sweeter Than Sugar albums in 1980 and ‘81. Now he was working with Sugar again, this time as promoter, under the moniker Barn-a-Rebel Productions.

Sugar Minott last performed locally in February 2001 at Club Viva. He had a more fitting backing band this time, one that included Studio One keyboardist Pablove Black.

Shaggie Williams of Wakefield, Jamaica, opened the show. He had Sugar’s band and they did a tight, energetic, well-received set of original music. I knew Shaggie through his family – I was working with his father, Prince Elijah Williams, on a book. Shaggie is the second son, and the only Rasta, among Prince’s eight children, and he sings conscious tunes with shades of Dennis Brown.

Shaggie’s then-wife Sherry Williams (head of Rootical Records) was tour manager, and they were on the road with their young baby girl in tow. She was fearlessly breast-feeding the baby with all the logistical madness of a tour going on, remaining unflaggingly serene. Would I mind picking up the artist from the airport, she asked. No, not at all.

I relished the opportunity to chauffer. One-on-one time with an artist on tour is a rare commodity, and there would be a solid 20-minute drive from the airport to the venue. I wanted Sugar to give me a musical insight, I wanted a vividly recalled memory (for my brain and my portable recorder to keep) of old time sound system days in the 70s and 80s, I wanted to learn something about mentoring itself in listening to him talk about working with this or that young artist. I made a mix CD with tunes of his that I had selected for the interview and ready to pop in the car stereo.

Sugar came through the gate of Southwest Airlines chatting up a guy with brown paper bag in his hand. The 30-ish fellow had been seated next to Sugar and in flight they had struck up a long conversation. The guy didn’t leave Sugar’s side ... and didn’t stop talking except to swallow a mouthful from the bottle in the bag here and there. Neither had checked luggage, so we – the three of us, for dude was now Sugar’s personally invited guest to the show – climbed into the car.

“This is what you would call rub-a-dub,” Sugar called out to his new friend in the back seat in regard to I forget which tune as we motored on the highway. The song changed, and Sugar told him, “Culture lyrics-dis, yuh understan’?” The guy with the bottle was yammering. He had some minor role in the entertainment business and was all hubba-hubba about it, wanted Sugar to stay free at his villa, that kind of pitch, the whole while.

When we arrived at Club Viva, I joined the posse in the club manager’s office. Sugar went to change into stage attire. I talking to Sherry about music and babies as the DJ spun the dancehall records, thump-thump, thump-thump. Sugar emerged resplendent in gold and had a cup of tea with honey. Everybody was deferential to the baby mama.

The place was jammed. The band rendered the music with lean and nimble grace, just the way it was cut, and Mr Minott was on form. I was hanging in back, not in sightline of the musicians, but enjoying the Jamaican vibes still. I skinny-wedged through the crowd during “Sprinter Stayer,” my song of inspiration, seeing Sugar swing and sing and nick up the venue’s intensity level. A few songs later, maybe an hour into the show, I left in order to drive Shaggie and Sherry back to their hotel and catch up with them. Next day I heard that Bottle inna Paper Bag Guy had passed out under Pablove Black’s keyboard before the show was over.

As I trod the reggae routes I would continue to see Sugar Minott, although not in St. Louis. He played the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2005 and 2007; I also caught him in Negril in the mid-2000s. The voice had lost a little of the silk since his halcyon heyday, but he always retained vocal dynamics and a commanding presence on the stage. I thought of him as the Muhammad Ali of reggae. Just as Ali by the 1970s had lost something that was singularly his in the 60s and he savvily found ways to compensate and to be the champion, Sugar Minott remained an in-control artist through a 40-year career, whether he was making new hits or singing the old ones. An intelligent singer, always, and one who never lost the threads of connection, thematic and real, which bound him to his audience.

And now, these few enduring images and a whole heapa music are all I have left of Sugar Minott. That and the sublime sight of my 13-month-old daughter doing a baby-fied skank anytime I punch up the Sugar Minott tracks.

One more memory picture before I go:

Sugar at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Mendocino County, California, in 2007. He played two sets that year, one on the main stage, one as selector in the after-hours dancehall, leading the charge with foundation tunes and his own upful microphone chat. On Sunday, the last night of SNWMF, he was in the crowd checking out Vernon Maytone onstage. It was a comfortably warm early evening, the sun beginning to go down. Maytone, Leonard Dillon and Derrick Morgan were closing a long, satisfying festival weekend. People were packed up, drawing the last sweet dregs of the reggae old school style.

Sugar was there sitting on a table in front of stage left and to the side. Fans would come hugging and hailing him up and one or two wanted photos, but he was also left alone to enjoy the show. Vernon Maytone acknowledged him at the microphone. Sugar wasn't flaunting though. He was there for the classic Maytones tunes in this modified dancehall in foresty northern California. Chillin’.

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